Sexual orientation is not something one considers when it comes to puppets.
But when Mark Saltzman – creator of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie – told Queerty.com that he wrote the characters’ relationship as a “loving couple,” the long-time “roommate” narrative became debunked as romantic.
The relationship status of two puppets on a children’s series is not exactly a pressing issue. Saltzman revealing that Bert and Ernie’s relationship was based off his own should be taken as no more than a fun and charming anecdote.
Sesame Street producers did not seem to take it this way.
The company released a statement on Twitter on Sept. 18, claiming the two puppets are merely a platonic duo.
“They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves,” the tweet read. “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics… They remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Not only is a statement like this an insult to Bert and Ernie’s creator, but it portrays homosexuality as something that needs to be censored.
A gay relationship is no more inappropriate for young viewers than the other relationships depicted on the show, such as Oscar the Grouch and Grundgetta. It appears that Sesame Street is only concerned about removing labels when the two characters in question are of the same gender.
It’s not like Sesame Street has shied away from tackling difficult issues on their show either. The series has explored stories with divorce, childhood hunger and autism. Why would homosexuality be too taboo of a topic for producers to agree with?
As one could imagine, Sesame Street’s statement sparked some unrest in the LGBT community. Since then, the company deleted their first statement and posted another.
“Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance,” the second statement read. “It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome. Bert and Ernie were created to be best friends, and to teach young children that people can get along with those who are very different from themselves.”
This new statement is a nice way to dodge criticism about excluding gay characters while still insisting that the characters are not actually gay.
Gay is not a dirty word.
Homosexual relationships are not any more lewd or vulgar than heterosexual ones.
While the sexual orientation of two puppets does not seem like a big issue, Sesame Street’s denial of Bert and Ernie contributes to the idea that heterosexuality is a harmless and normal identity, and homosexuality is inappropriate and deviant. It’s a cultural “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that hurts people more than it protects them.
What exactly is the fear of exposing children to gay characters anyway? Are we worried children will identify with them? If that’s the case, then gay characters are not the problem. Underlying homophobia is.
There is nothing wrong with portraying a loving couple between two characters of the same gender in children’s programming. In fact, it could be a great way to normalize non-heterosexual identities at a young age.
It’s also not as uncommon of a story line as one may think. Two female characters on the animated series, Steven Universe, got married on an episode in August. Adventure Time also had two female characters share a kiss.
Sesame Street should take a note from these shows.
Inclusion and acceptance is an admirable goal, but it cannot be accomplished by censoring identities that are very real and do not need to be hidden.
Paige Wisniewski is a senior majoring in interdisciplinary social science.